Taking a break from the Covid catastrophe in New Zealand, I have been catching up with British politics, and the major parties conferences. The Conservative Party is having a train wreck as I write, whereas the Labour Party had a good showcase, with no obvious dissension in the ranks. Polling puts Labour miles ahead, enough to create a landslide win like no other under the First Past the Post electoral system. Paradoxically perhaps, Labour Party members seem to want to change the electoral system. New Zealand of course changed its FPTP system to proportional representation the the mid 1990s.
But before writing on the downside of that, I have to comment on the revelations about the British Labour Party during the Corbyn era, as seen in the Al Jazeera documentaries. The programme, called the ‘Labour Files’, is based on a large leak of internal party documents which showed how the Labour Party head office staff white-anted Jeremy Corbyn as a leader, and used accusations of anti-Semitism to remove branch level office holders who supported Corbyn. Some of this was already well known, and was seen as part of factional warfare. But the Labour Files also shows the reaction of former members when shown documents they were unaware of. This indicates both the kind of denunciations made by other party members, and who was supporting this in the Labour hierarchy.
Obviously there is an agenda behind the Al Jazeera reporting, but it is not simply anti-Israeli sentiment and bias. A lot of the journalists working for the Qatar-based network are of European origin, and a significant number are New Zealanders, in fact almost the cream of the crop have gone there in recent times (previously they would have worked for the BBC). Also relevant is an earlier documentary from Al Jazeera, which showed how an operative from the Israeli embassy in London liaised with various players in the Labour Party, including MPs and party members. I recall seeing how a then London-based MP, Joan Ryan, would engage other members in heated debates at a conference, and then accuse them of using ‘anti-Semitic tropes’. Ryan may have gone but similar tactics remain in the factional playbook.
Part 1 of the Labour Files highlights what happened to pro-Corbyn members in Labour strongholds in Merseyside and Brighton (and Hove). In the Wallasey electorate, local members were accused of abuse against the sitting MP, Angela Eagle, based on sexual orientation. Eagle was trying to challenge Corbyn, and the right wing press seized on this example to attack Corbyn with. All the local members appearing on the programme denied it had happened, and claimed that Eagle hadn’t even been at the meeting in question. In Liverpool, Anna Rothery was on the shortlist as a mayoral candidate, at least she thought she was. The Labour head office called off the selection meeting, and wanted an entirely new list for the position, without Rothery on it. During the making of the documentary Rothery is shown a letter from a Labour councillor which is a lengthy denunciation and character assassination, which formed part of the action to halt her selection. Except, when she took the Labour Party to court they did not disclose it to her, and she lost case and had to pay them significant costs.
Even more blatant smears and denunciations occurred after a left wing slate ran in a Brighton area annual general meeting, and in which office holders would all be Corbyn supporters. The files show that Labour Party officials immediately moved to overturn the AGM result, firstly through making false accusations, and then finding legal justifications for it after the fact; and then followed the personal denigration of individuals. A lot of this denigration was through social media, especially Twitter, and included the accusation of anti-Semitism. One particular young Labour activist from London took this to extremes, and created dossiers of abuse and bile on specific targets. One left member in Brighton, a young lawyer, had a dossier accusing him of anti-Semitism sent to his employer, and to his parents. On camera he claims that the dossier had a terrible impact on them, and his step-father died soon after.
Now we could name the aggressive young activist here, but the point of the documentary was to show who was behind him. Obviously when left leaning members complained to the Party about the abuse the abuser was suspended, and an investigation took place. The Labour Files shows that sitting MPs provided character references for him, although it only named the Harrow West MP, Gareth Thomas. But the programme also had a document which indicated that a member of the Labour party’s administrative body (the National Executive Committee), Luke Akehurst, had also helped the young activist with his own case for avoiding expulsion. It also showed a photo of Akehurst with his protege. Akehurst is the main player in the anti-Corbyn faction, and openly states that purging the left of the party is essential to making Labour ‘electable’ again. Anyway, it seems Akehurst could not save his personal factional warrior from a formal expulsion, but that ruling was never actually executed.
Now, after the screening of the Labour files some of the left wing Corbynistas were due to appear on a little talk show, which is posted on YouTube, called Not the Andrew Marr Show. This is hosted by someone called Crispin Flintoff, who appears in an amusing hat and bright suit jacket – in other words it has a satirical edge. But when introducing the show on the Al Jazeera documentary, Crispin first had to mention that he already had received a pre-emptive ‘cease and desist’ letter, warning against defaming the Akehurst protege, sent by a big London law firm called Mishcon de Reya (MDR). Indeed, MDR is an international law firm, with an office in Singapore, and a 24-hour help desk. Why would a leading city law firm like MDR want to represent a bully boy activist from London without a job? Indeed, how would a yobbo like him afford to instruct a Kings Counsel to act on his behalf in a political matter.
Well the answer is obvious if you put Mishcon de Reya into Google, and then add the name Keir Starmer. Many legal publication in 2014 ran articles on how the brilliant former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, had joined MDR, to consult in its business crime unit. He had in fact followed his former understudy at DPP, Andrea Levitt KC, who had become a partner at MDR (and still is). Interestingly, MDR received a large six figure fine for not complying with anti-money laundering regulations in 2017, but that was after Sir Keir had left the firm to stand for the Labour Party in the Holborn & St Pancras electorate. But he was still linked with MDR after his election in 2015, and earned a pretty penny as a consultant for Levitt through until 2016, according to an article in The Guardian, when questions were asked about his moonlighting. Starmer appears to have severed the link to MDR when he was put on Labour’s front bench in 2016 (obviously this was a mistake by Corbyn).
Anyway, the point of this careful reconstruction of the issues is firstly, to avoid legal action by MDR, and secondly to suggest that Sir Keir Starmer cannot disassociate himself from the tactics of his right wing faction. He must know how Akehurst and friends operate, with the smears, denunciations by fellow party members, and their fabrication of evidence. There is still a question over how the legal defence of the right faction is funded: one would assume that Al Jazeera believe that the Israelis are involved; but Starmer must know, given his close links with the law firm MDR. And, as the journalist Peter Oborne states in the Labour Files programme, the legal issues that emerge from the documents call into question Starmer’s judgment and how he would operate as a Prime Minister (which he is set to become at the next election).
Now back to proportional representation and the New Zealand experience. In New Zealand we still have electorate seats, but about half the MPs are selected by a nation-wide party vote. This requires that political parties select a nation-wide party list; although in other proportional representation systems there can be regional party lists. Anyway, to cut a long story short, if there is already friction in a party over candidate selection for individual constituencies, then the conflict would really break out in a contest for winnable places on a party list. And controlling the party list gives enormous power to the party leadership and its administrators. Indeed, party list candidates are mostly just lobby fodder: if they don’t tow the line, and vote on party lines, they tend to be forced out, and the next person on the list just takes their place. Even if rogue MPs try to stay on in Parliament, they know they won’t get re-elected.
So we then find that proportional representation would create its own additional problems for the British Labour Party. As things stand, Starmer’s faction would no doubt get most, if not all, of the plum party list places. If he did this he would effectively push the left faction out completely, and they would have to compete as a separate party, meaning that Labour would not get the majority government it so desperately wants. But Starmer’s faction has already pushed the Corbyn faction so far that, if Corbyn himself is not allowed to stand at the next election, a split could cost them yet another electoral loss. The contents of the Labour Files are so disgraceful one would have to say they don’t deserve to win anyway.